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The Top 10 Film Costume Designs of the Decade. Part II

Earlier this year I released my Part I of my Top 10 Film Costume Designs of the Decade list, which covered the number 10 spot all through the number 6 spot. Now (finally) ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, my number 5 through 1!

5. THE DRESSMAKER (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015). Costume Design by Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson.

The Dressmaker is a story about lies, secrets, and fashion. It feels only natural then, that the movie, despite the tonal whiplash and overall weird storytelling choices, is blessed with a glorious Costume Design. The costumes here are not only eye candy but become an integral part of the story, the characters, and the film's themes.

Indeed, such was the scope of the enterprise, costume-wise that they split the Costume Design into the hands of two different Designers. Marion Boyce did all the costumes regarding the townspeople, and Margot Wilson focussed only on the costumes for Winslet's character.

The movie explores the true nature of people and how clothes help define that. A clever twist on the traditional makeover narrative, as those who do get a makeover, do not really deserve it, nor does it make them better people. Fashion doesn't help you be who you want to be: it only allows you to pretend to be the person you want to be.

It's especially noteworthy the brilliant use of color, contour, texture, and style to first build the ugly reality these characters live in and then to create the fantasy that high couture allows them to experience.

When we meet these town's folk, they are all dressed in earthy, bleak tones and a tea-colored palette matched with cotton pinafores and smocks and rough-spoon aprons. This costuming choice visually blends them into the desolated landscape in which they live. It creates a sense of barrenness and decay; of close-mindedness and uniformity. And in that way, it captures the spirit of the town and its people.

In contrast, Kate Winslet's character is the only dressed in warm, rich tones when wearing her regular day to day clothes, as if to point out how much she doesn't fit in. She's not dull and lifeless; she's filled to the brim with creativity and life despite her hardships and traumas.

Accordingly, the costumes she designs and sews are bright-colored, highly-tailored, and fashion-forward pieces of art that allow these dull people to pretend to be who they always wanted to be, underlining the idea of the transformative power of costume, even if that transformation is only surface deep.

What makes these designs truly exceptional is that they come together to create a movie that, at its core, is a love letter to fashion. It's a beautiful ode to designers and seamstresses around the world. An assertion of costume-making as something more than vain pandering to women. A statement about the importance of owning one's personality and style. An invitation to express ourselves through costuming. 

The Dressmaker was included on my 2016's Top Favorite Costume Designs List 
and on a two-part deep dive about the movie (part I, part II).

4. WONDER WOMAN (Patty Jenkins, 2017). Costume Design by Lindy Hemming.

This past decade has been, undoubtedly, an incredibly fertile decade for comic book movies. It was only logical that one of them would qualify for this list. So, out of all the comic-book adaptations that were brought forward to the silver screen this decade, why is this one the best?

There are many reasons, but the one that stands out to me is simply that it had a much harder job than any other. First and foremost, because everyone (even people who've never read a comic book) can tell you what Wonder Woman looks like, so they couldn't just redesign the costume to fit the movie as they did with Captain Marvel or the X-Men saga. She is such an iconic character that it was impossible to wipe the slate clean. Add to this the fact that designing for a female superhero is a tricky thing due to the usual trappings of female superhero costumes that are set in place to objectify and oversexualize the character and you are setting up yourself for failure. And yet, somehow, Lindy Hemming managed not only to make it work but to make it stand out.

The final design takes a lot of the classic Wonder Woman costume, and yet, it feels essentially different. And the main reason why is its intent. It aims to be understood as armor. And logically, it goes to take its influence from Roman and Greek armor. This is particularly noticeable when looking at her boots. Traditionally, Wonder Woman's boots had no practical function, they were there for aesthetic purposes only. Hemmings instead fashioned her "boots" to resemble  Roman greaves, which are real battle wear designed to protect the knees and the lower legs.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the movie needed to create a wardrobe for the whole of the Amazon culture in a way that felt integrated with the already established Wonder Woman aesthetics. Not an easy feat indeed. Maintaining the Roman-inspired basic structure seems easy enough. Integrating the bright colors of the Wonder Woman suit feels somehow harder.

Here Hemmings brought forward a clever idea. On one end of the spectrum are the gritty, realistic earth tones of Antiope and her warriors, and on the other end, there's the cleaner and more plastic look of the higher echelons of the Amazon leadership. This creates the thematic link between color and Godhood: the closer to the Gods, the more color you wear. It's a clever design conceptualization that goes a long way without actually calling attention to itself.

All in all, the film had to come up with a costume that would evoke the more classic Lynda Carter costume whilst also creating something that would fit well into the setting of the movie and made sense as armor and all the while avoiding possible criticisms for over-sexualization whilst satisfying the higher-ups' at Warner Bros. And they did it with flying colors. That's why it's my number 4 pick.

Wonder Woman was included on my 2017's Top Favorite Costume Designs List 
and a deep dive article on the movie.

3. MIRROR MIRROR (Tarsem Singh, 2012). Costume Design by Eiko Ishioka.

It seems like ages ago, but it was only the early 2010's when Hollywood's obsession with reimagining fairytales translated into a never-ending parade of terrible fantasy films. The trend got so out of control that in 2012, within the span of a few months, we saw the release of not one, but two movies retelling the same fairy tale. On the one hand, there was Snow White & the Huntsman, a blockbuster with epic aspirations, and on the other, there was Mirror, Mirror, a more classic approach to the story. Neither was particularly good, but the latter, thanks to the collaboration between Indian filmmaker Tarsem Singh and Costume Designer Eiko Ishioka, managed to create incredibly memorable visuals to boost the film.

Acclaimed Japanese artist Eiko Ishioka (art director, costume designer, and graphic designer) is a legend both in stage, screen, advertising, and print media. She is the mind behind the iconic costume design of Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula (1992) and had previously worked with Indian filmmaker Tarsem Singh on The Cell (2000) and The Fall (2006) when she came on board for Mirror, mirror. Unfortunately, she passed away right before the movie was released.

Ishioka's design is both extremely classic and extremely modern. It takes the aesthetics of the past (particularly the 16th to 19th century) and combines it with bright synthetics colors to create the film's fantasy feel.

Also particularly noteworthy is the extreme color coordination between the set design and the costume design, which help create a very artificial look, which in turn helps create the idea that you are watching a fairytale as distanced from reality as possible.

The costume Design for Mirror, Mirror is a fairy tale brought to life in the most exquisite way: it's classic, yet unique and original. It's the final masterpiece of a legendary designer, and that's enough to secure its spot on this list.

Mirror, Mirror was the focus on the second installment of my series of articles dedicated to designing a fairy tale.

2. LA LA LAND (Damien Chazelle, 2016). Costume Design by Mary Zophres.

A lot of people hold the prejudice that there is no real merit in the Costume Design for a Contemporary Film. I absolutely hate that mentality. Whilst it is true that it's cheaper to dress your actors for a contemporary setting, that doesn't mean that it doesn't require the same talent, creativity, and resourcefulness when it comes to creating a concept that enhances the story. This mentality became plenty obvious when La La Land secured its nomination for Best Achievement in Costume Design. Had it won, it would have been the first contemporary film to win Best Costume Design in 22 years (the last one to do so was Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994).

Another misconception that I can't stand is the association between Contemporary and Realism. One does not equal the other. La La Land aims to create an alternative version of our world; a better, more emotional one; an expressionistic version of our reality. This is strongly reinforced in the costume design through the use of color, textures, and the constant blending of retro fashion trends with contemporary sensibilities to create a timeless feeling around the characters and the story.

Mia, when she is first introduced to the audience, is a wide-eyed dreamer. To reflect that, Zophres created a vibrant, vivacious, and colorful wardrobe that denotes youthful self-assertion. It also creates this old-Hollywood vibe that matches perfectly the nostalgic feeling of the movie as a whole. As the movie progresses, Mia starts to become more self-assured of her own talents and her own place in the world. She starts to focus more on her work. That causes a slow shift in the costumes: color starts to become less bold, more de-saturated, and the dresses start to be less dramatic, less Hollywood-like. It is no coincidence that its when she goes back home when her wardrobe is the closest to real contemporary clothing. She's in jeans and sweaters and very tame and de-saturated colors.

This, coupled with flawless coordination between costumes and production design, which complement and enhance each other beautifully, manages to evoke in the viewer an intoxicating feeling of nostalgia whilst at the same time creating a dream-like mood for the story.

Yet the biggest achievement of it all is that it manages to feel completely effortless, just as any good dance number should. That alone has guaranteed a spot for the film on this list.

La La Land was included on my 2016's Top Favorite Costume Designs List 
and on that year's Oscar Retrospective.

1. CRIMSON PEAK (Guillermo del Toro, 2015). Costume Design by Kate Hawley.

Guillermo del Toro's 2015 gothic tale is a visual delight, and its Costume Design, created by del Toro's usual collaborator, Kate Hawley, has stuck in my mind since the first time I saw it. 

Hawley's designs are built from scratch using period fashion, textures, color, and decorative elements to visually reinforce the characters, the differences between them and the world they inhabit. It helps create certain ideas around the characters and their place in this story.

I wholeheartedly believe that it was the best costume design of that year and it is a shame and an absolute travesty that it did not even get a nomination for Best Costume Design.

I find particularly interesting the use of period costuming to establish a key difference between the two antagonists, Edith and Lucille. The movie takes place in 1901, right at the turn of the century, when women's fashion was beginning to relax coinciding with the beginning of the suffragette movement and the "modern woman". Edith, an aspiring American writer, is dressed accordingly. Lucille, a broke, run-down European aristocrat is not. She's dressed to match the fashion of the 1880s, placing her out of fashion by a good twenty years.

This doesn't only make sense within the narrative (the Sharpe's are broke and are still wearing their parents' clothes), but it builds thematically on the characters. The 1900s fashion, with its billowy sleeves and shirts and ties, represents the working woman, the future. On the other hand, the 1880s constricting fashion represents the past, the binding restrictions of an era gone by. Edith looks to the future, while Lucille is stuck in the past.

Much in the same way, the design assigns certain colors to each of them to build around this idea. Lucille is dressed in dark, ominous colors: blue, black, and blood red. Meanwhile, Edith is draped in hues of yellow and gold, creating a stunning visual contrast: they are like day and night. Edith, with her eyes set on the future, is dressed in bright colors. Lucille, anchored in the past, drowns in darkness.

Last but not least, Hawley dedicated an enormous amount of effort into the detailing of the gowns, adding little things that would reinforce the characters and their themes. For example, the lacing at the back of Lucille's red dress is designed to look like a human skeleton's spine to underline the starvation and hunger she's gone through her life and how she's been defined by it. Through the way the dress is constructed, it gives the feeling that bones are protruding from her, further connecting her character to the concept of death.

Much in the same way, the garland of leaves and acorns encircles Lucille's blue gown like a vine that simultaneously protects and strangulates her. It's almost like the vegetation is growing out of the earth and twisting itself around her. As if she's slowly becoming part of the architecture.

All in all, Hawley's design's main strength lies in its narrative prowess: its ability to create intricate and detailed pieces that use every tool in the toolshed to add to the character and describe what’s happening to herself and to the world around her. And because of this, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that this should be my number 1 pick for Best Film Costume Design of the Decade.

Crimson Peak was included on my 2015's Top Favorite Costume Designs List 
and on a two-part deep dive about the movie (part Ipart II).



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